Europe and the 2015 Swiss election: On not jumping to majoritarian conclusions

Clive Church

Initial responses to the results of the Swiss elections of 18 October 2015 suggested a dramatic paradigm shift. And this was true both of outsiders and of Swiss journalists and others who ought to know better. Thus the best-selling tabloid ‘Blick’ claimed ‘The People’s Party Triumphs’ while other commentators made great play of the fact that, if one added together the seats won by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the Radicals and the regional extreme right parties, then the ‘right’ had an absolute majority. Others claimed that this meant the right now had a veto on policy and that the SVP had gained its revenge for 2011. All this boils down to an assumption that there will be sweeping political changes over the next four years as there might be in a majoritarian polity. Moreover, experience tells me that it is never wise to prophesy dramatic upheavals in Switzerland.

The reality is that Swiss politics are more complex than these simplistic assessments. In fact, Switzerland faces four more years of difficult negotiations and confrontations in parliament, as the increasingly divided political system struggles to agree deals. And things could be further complicated by referenda. So the only certainty is that the country faces further uncertainty.

On 18 October the SVP emerged with a historically unparalleled 29.4% of the vote and 65 seats. This represented a gain of 2.8% and 11 seats on its disappointing 2011 result. The Social Democrats came second with 18.8% and 43 seats. Although the latter marginally increased their vote share the party still lost three seats. It was followed by the Radicals who gained 1.3% and three seats, ending up with 16.4% and 33 seats. This was the first time in years that the party had not lost votes. The Christian Democrats lost less than normal, going down by only 0.7% and one seat to 11.6% and 26 seats.

The gains made by the SVP and the Radicals came mainly from the ecologists. In 2011 the latter benefitted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster which made environmental issues highly salient. Four years later fashions had changed and migration became the dominant concern, even though the wider European crisis had yet to impact on Switzerland. Hence the centrist Green Liberals lost 1.2% and 5 seats, ending with 4.6% and seven seats. The orthodox left-of-centre Green party lost 1.3% and 5 seats, finishing up with 7.1% and 10 seats. The other centrist winner from 2011, the Conservative Democratic Party (BPD), lost 1.3% and two seats ending up with 4.1% and 7 seats. Thus most of the 14 seats won by the two main right-wing parties came essentially from the centre, not the left. Hence, what was seen in 2011 as the ‘Neu Mitte’ was reduced to its real proportions in 2015.

The parliament also offers a home to three other parties. The centrist Evangelical People’s party (EVP) held on to its two seats, while two regional far right parties also maintained their place: the Ticinese League won two seats and the Genevan Citizens’ Movement (MCG) one. Despite the talk of a ‘slippage’ to the right, neither managed to win the extra seats they had hoped for. However, the Marxist Parti Ouvrier Populaire party won a seat in Neuchâtel. Hence, the National Council ended up hosting eleven parties, showing that Swiss political pluralism was alive and well.

This is one reason why the gains made by the SVP and the Radicals are not likely to translate into drastic changes of political direction. The Swiss have a very effective PR system which allows the people to enshrine their strongly held support for a wide range of parties. These cannot be side-lined as they are in the UK. Consequently, the kind of breakthroughs recently found in Scotland and Canada are just not possible. Unprecedented though the SVP’s figures are, they are still too limited to allow the party to re-shape politics and the polity in the way that parties with large majorities can do in majoritarian systems. In any case, the SVP’s gains only really restored it to where it was in 2007. Had it not forced its moderates out and into the new Conservative Democratic Party (BPD), it could probably now have even more seats. Certainly it fell short of the 33% that some hoped for.

There are other reasons. To begin with all the attention was on the Lower House. There are likely to be second rounds on the coming four Sundays. And these are likely to produce rather different results from those in the National Council, given the different electoral system used. Traditionally the SVP does not do well in them and it has already withdrawn its candidate from the re-run in Berne. Given that the Swiss Parliament is perfectly bi-cameral, the Council of States, widely regarded as a revising chamber, is well placed to block extremist policies.

Secondly, talk of ‘the right’ is an arithmetic construction not a political reality. Although there is much talk of ‘polarization’, Hanspeter Kriesi is right to say that Switzerland has a tri-polar political system, with a far-right, a centre-right, and a centre-left. The experience of the collapse of a pre-election agreement between the SVP, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats on economic policies to offset the rising value of the franc shows how limited their links are. And the nature of the government means that there is no manifesto to be implemented as there is in a majoritarian system Moreover, the Radicals have strengthened their position and will not wish to become a satellite of the SVP as cartoonists have suggested might happen. And, while there is a certain similarity in their views on economic matters, they disagree on EU relations. Thus the Radicals seem to have emerged as the most trusted, and sensible, party on EU relations.

Thirdly, although the SVP gained in the elections, it did so on the back of a singularly content-free campaign, described by some as ‘de-politicised’. Indeed, by the end the only real subject of discussion was the make-up of the government and whether the SVP would have another hissy fit if it was not given a second seat. This was partly because, for once, the SVP largely eschewed the inflammatory posters which have distinguished its previous campaigns and, like many others, resorted to dog whistle politics to win over its core supporters. Its slogans urged people to stay secure and free; in other words, to resist outside challenges, notably the growing waves of refugees seeking a European escape from Eastern war and chaos. It also talked much about breaking the alleged hold of the centre-left in Parliament. Hence it did not really engage in detailed policy prescriptions. In particular Europe was hardly mentioned at all.

So it cannot convincingly claim a mandate for specific policies especially as it failed to stop a further fall in turnout. Indeed, one senior SVP figure remarked that people knew what their parties stood for, and trusted them to pursue their interests in parliament. None of this means that the party campaigned ineffectively. It did not. It was as well organized as ever and even better funded. It also made greater use of Facebook than ever before.

Its strategy appeared to work. The party lost no seats and strengthened its control of the political agenda. And, although it is now the largest party in most districts and continued to attract former Social Democrat voters, its main gains came in its German-speaking heartland. This included seats in: Appenzell AR, Aargau, Berne, Graubunden, Lucerne, Schwytz, St Gallen, Uri and Zurich. These probably came from new or occasional voters with right-wing sympathies. It also won extra seats in the bilingual cantons of Fribourg and Valais. Four of these came from the Socialists, two from the Radicals and the rest from the centre parties. Exit polls also suggested that, while the party did well on the fringes of agglomerations, it did much less well in the big cities where its share of the vote never passed 17%. It was also somewhat weaker in several smaller cantonal capitals. This points to the continuing division between two Switzerlands: urban and outward looking, and rural and introverted.

Conversely the Social Democrats did well in such urban places, winning two seats in Zurich while losing in Aargau, Fribourg, Schwytz, Valais and Vaud. And in the biggest cities they won over 30% of the vote. The Radicals lost seats in Appenzell AR, Neuchâtel and Uri but won in six other cantons. The Christian Democrats also won a seat in Valais, although losing two in Solothurn and Basle City. Similarly the Green Party won a seat in the latter while losing elsewhere, largely in Western Switzerland. The other centre parties were unable to win any new seats.

All this points to a much more complicated picture than the press, traditionally more inclined to give more coverage to the right, often suggested. Switzerland remains a pluralist country and policies will have to evolve through parliamentary committees and debate. This will test the limits of the SVP’s new ‘muscle’ and its willingness to compromise. The latter will be particularly tested in the December elections for the national government where it will be hard for the SVP to persuade the other parties that it is willing to play the collegiate game.

Moreover there are at least two further complications. The SVP is going to challenge the new asylum law and there will certainly have to be a popular vote on the RAUS initiative, perhaps with a counter-project from NOMES/NEBS, the Swiss European movement. These could cut across on-going disputes, or possibly an impasse, on the twin linked issues of Europe and migration. This could mean parties resorting to yet more referenda. On financial questions things might be easier. As before the proof of the majoritarian headlines pudding will be in the Swiss eating, and this could be slow and anything but sure. Switzerland remains a divided mixed democracy and how it resolves its problems remains very uncertain.

Clive Church is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at the University of Kent.